LAKE COMO/BELMAR, NJ — Confronted with declining response rates by its volunteer emergency services corps, Lake Como will pay Belmar to provide essential fire and first aid services.

The Lake Como Council on December 19 authorized the borough to outsource fire and first aid services to neighboring Belmar — at a combined price tag of $50,000 annually.

It’s not the first time Lake Como is partnering with Belmar for shared services. Last year, it entered into a 10-year contract with Belmar for police services after voters rejected a major tax increase that would have kept alive its now-disbanded police department.

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The governing body’s recent action comes just days after state health and operational inspections of the South Belmar Fire Department (SBFD) show that it did not meet federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards in key areas.

“There were 37 instances of serious hazards that could cause an accident or pose a health hazard,” said Mayor Brian Wilton. “The buck stops with the mayor and council, and my recommendation is to enter into an interlocal agreement with Belmar.

“(The OSHA) report solidifies what my worries were,” he added, maintaining that outsourcing both fire and first aid services “preserves the level of public safety that residents should expect.”

The borough requested the inspections be made through the N.J. Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health State Plan after it received a request from SBFD for an increase in the borough’s annual contribution from $20,000 to $100,000 — earmarked primarily for equipment upgrades.

The falling response rate by both the borough’s SBFD and South Belmar First Aid Squad (SBFA) has been an issue for at least a decade, Wilton said, citing a lack of membership and participation as the major reasons for the decline.

As a result, Belmar's three fire companies and first aid squad have been increasingly called — under the auspices of mutual aid — to handle Lake Como’s emergency and nonemergency calls.  With the outsourcing agreements expected to be finalized at an upcoming Belmar Council meeting, those arrangements would be formalized.

Under an interlocal agreement with Belmar for fire protection and prevention services, Lake Como would pay a percentage of Belmar’s operations and capital budget — an amount that would total about $30,000 annually, according to officials.

In addition, the SBFD would be dissolved under township ordinance — a measure that also was introduced by the Lake Como Council with a public hearing and final vote scheduled for its January 2 meeting.

Under a contractual arrangement for first aid services, Belmar would provide those services at a “reasonable rate,” not to exceed the Lake Como’s current appropriation to SBFA of $20,000 annually, according to borough officials. Because Lake Como’s first aid squad is a private entity, its future remains unclear.

Before the Lake Como Council made its final decision, a letter was read into the record from six former SBFD chiefs asking that they be given six months to “rehabilitate the (SBFD and SBFA) to an outstanding department and squad with new leadership and management.

“Our plan is to reappoint the executive board, as well as restructure the daily fire ground operations to ensure that our firemen volunteers are properly trained and operate with up-to-date equipment. These tasks can be performed in house by the former chiefs for a lesser fee than it would to outsource to another town and facility,” according to the letter, signed by David Keys with Joe McLaughlin, Alfred Hazel, Pete Reba, Clifford Russell and Charles Spannos as co-signers.

In the letter, the chiefs requested that current SBFD Chief Ronald Whille be removed from that volunteer position for “direct dereliction of duty,” citing a battery of reasons pertaining to operational issues.

Calling the former chiefs’ proposal “a noble gesture,” Wilton said, “It is too little, too late. You can’t undo the dysfunction and it’s not fair to place the entire burden on Ron Whille. There’s been dysfunction for quite a while — 13 years since I’ve been here.”

Councilman Kevin Higgins, who serves as liaison to fire department and first aid squad, called their volunteers members dedicated, and who response at a moment’s notice when they are available.

“But it’s not enough anymore,” he said. “For the last couple of years, I have been helping and guiding them to get volunteers, but it’s not working. I don’t see how conditions can be corrected in six months.”

As a 45-year SBFD life member and former member of SBFA, Councilman Douglas Witte said the decision to turn over fire and first aid services to Belmar was his most difficult to make in his 25 years on the governing body. “My heart goes one way and my brain goes another,” he said. “As an elected official, it’s a major safety issue … and it is (in the borough’s) best interest to do this.”

Lake Como's last shared services arrangement with Belmar was inked in May 2016 for police services, after Lake Como voters struck down in a special referendum a budget proposal that would have seen the municipal tax rate climb 22 percent — due in large part to staffing of its 10-member police department. Estimates at that time showed it would have cost Lake Como at least $2.4 million to maintain its own police department at a state-recommended capacity.

Under the terms of the 10-year contact, which includes a five-year opt-out provision, Lake Como pays 25 percent of Belmar’s annual police budget, excluding special police officers. This year, Lake Como budgeted $1.175 million for those costs.

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